PORT ARTHUR, MORE. THAN MANY OTHER CITIES of this country, felt the profits and dangers, the alarms and more prosaic but equally as spectacular business activities, of the World War. The flags that flew in its harbor, the gigantic cargoes of oil, lumber and other commodities for warring nations, brought the conflict of Europe very close.
Operations of the Gulf Refining Company had so grown by 1917 that it became necessary to hire 200 more men, bringing the total number working in the plant to 2,800. The company gave its employees a bonus, which, with one given by the Texas Company, amounted to about $450,000. The wages of two pay days, together with these bonuses, totaled about $850,000 during January. Available records indicated that “no other city in the entire south has, in any single month, paid so much money for labor.”
During this year the likelihood of United States involvement in the war increased local vigilance. On February 8, 1917, Texas and Gulf refinery officials announced that no visitors would be allowed in the grounds, and that workmen must be identified at the gates. Within a week, the Port Arthur Canal and Dock Company refused admittance to the wharves without a written permit from the superintendent. Approaches to the property were fenced and watchmen were assigned to twenty-four-hour duty.
In February the British tanker Saxonian was reported sunk by a German submarine; its bulk oil cargo had been loaded at the Gulf Refining Company docks.
Local military companies were ordered to stand mobilized, ready to entrain at a moment’s notice, and to report in uniform for duty as soon as possible. Recruiting stations were opened to muster in companies at full war strength. On April 9, the collector of customs for the Sabine district received instructions to clear all armed merchant vessels from the port without the usual “red tape which had been necessary since the outbreak of the European War.”
Company A, Texas Engineers, received orders from the War Department on May 23 to recruit to its full strength. This company was made up of skilled laborers, and its mobilization reduced the working population of Port Arthur. The Enterprise for that date said:
In neither men or money has Port Arthur been a slacker. A total of $775,000 has been subscribed to the liberty loan in Port Arthur . . . . These figures do not include the $100,000 which the Gulf Refining Company has promised to place in Port Arthur . . . . Out of a population of 20,000 people Port Arthur has given approximately 500 men to the service in the last twelve months.
Three companies had been recruited and a fourth was authorized. A naval sub-station also was maintained. The Texas Company bought $200,000 worth of liberty bonds; subscriptions to the Red Cross totaled $31,540.
The commissioner of finance and public records announced on September 26 that the wealth of the city for the past four years had been increasing at the rate of a million dollars annually. The Beaumont Enterprise said:
The most marked evidence of the growth of the city has been in the residence district. Since the 1915 storm, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth streets have been built up almost solid. These streets are twenty-eight blocks long and there are few vacant lots on either of them.
As Thanksgiving Day approached, housewives began to feel the effect of the war; no sugar had been shipped into the city for a week. “This,” said the Beaumont Enterprise, “is the first local indication that the rationing system is being adopted.”
During 1917 more than $500,000 worth of building permits had been issued (not including the $350,000 Franklin School building). Representatives of the quartermaster’s corps had arrived during the year to assemble lumber cargoes for France; in addition, the Government had opened a plant for the construction of knocked-down houses to be shipped to France for barracks.
As the war progressed, local folk became increasingly garden-minded. With the creation of the War Garden Association, the Tree Planting Association, and cooperative efforts of the Lions and Civic Clubs to plant roses, Port Arthur became indeed a city of gardens. A carload of palms was set out; 2,000 rose bushes were sold to encourage rose culture. The War Garden Association pushed forward its program of providing every family with some sort of garden, and where people had no land of their own, vacant lots and parks designated as community gardens were turned over to groups for cultivation.
War activities were evident everywhere. Seven sailors were sent to Port Arthur from New Orleans to act as a detail to guard ships entering Sabine Pass; they prevented undesirables from boarding the ships, and made sure that no contraband cargoes were aboard.
The most memorable Gates Day in the city’s history was celebrated on May 18, 1918, with the dedication of Memorial Library, a gift of Mrs. Dellora R. Gates as a memorial to her husband and son.
Grocers, on June 11, were permitted to sell flour for the first time in two months. Limits were set at six pounds to the family, with a like amount of substitute. With this flour shortage, many old residents demanded the opening of a grist mill where they might obtain “real fresh ground corn meal.”
By September almost all men workers in downtown stores and cafes had been replaced by girls and women. The labor shortage was becoming acute.
Spanish influenza swept through the town in the latter part of this year, and in order to check the epidemic, the mayor ordered all theaters and places of amusement, schools, churches, pool, billiard and domino halls, to close pending further orders.
German Avenue was ordered renamed Pershing Avenue. “It has gone the route of the Germania Verein and many other things German,” said one of the newspapers.
The new Army and Navy Young Men’s Christian Association building, at the foot of Austin Avenue in the city park, was dedi cated in a formal service on the afternoon of November 11, 1918, as the armistice turned the city into a place of frenzied celebration.
Mrs. Gates died at her home in the Plaza Hotel in New York City on November 28, 1918, and burial services were held at the Madison Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church there. On December 2 it was announced that the will of Mrs. Gates had been made public and that the Mary A. Gates Memorial Hospital and the Port Arthur College had each been bequeathed $10,000.
As Port Arthur returned to its peacetime routine, the Board of Trade announced on March 22, 1919, that it had just completed an exhaustive report on shipping data for the years between 1912 and 1918. During that period, 1,106 vessels sailed for England with a net tonnage of 3,877,824; Mexico was next with 1,088 vessels of 1,719,062 net tonnage.
Street improvements, residential building, and an upswing in business during the year brought encouragement to residents that the city might quickly return to its pre-war status. On October 5, the Beaumont Enterprise said:
Port Arthur is now the largest oil shipping port in the world, and is going to make itself felt in grain, cotton, cottonseed meal, lumber and general cargo. Port Arthur will within a few weeks again be shipping some of all of those commodities, just as it did before the war paralyzed commerce.
Wheat poured into the 500,000-bushel elevator; the Port Arthur Channel and Dock Company spent approximately $20,000 to put harbor facilities in first-class condition and the facilities of the Texas and Gulf Companies placed the port in an enviable position to care for a large amount of shipping. November, 1919, marked a new record of shipping activity for the Sabine-Neches district, totaling nearly ten million dollars.
The war had brought changes. Now the greater part of water traffic was done in American bottoms, where a few years before an American vessel in port was a novelty.
The city’s new drainage system was put to a severe test on January 27, 1920, when 300,000,000 gallons of water fell during a two-day rain storm. Six pumps, which lifted water from the big drainage ditches over a protecting levee, prevented a flood in the city.
Population figures for 1920, issued on March 27, showed 22,276 residents. There had been such an increase in the school population that on May 13, the board of trustees of the Port Arthur Independent School District asked for bids on the construction of a new school building in Port Arthur Heights. It was estimated that the local population was increasing at the rate of 300 a month.
During July ports of the Sabine district established another record. The total value of exports and imports for the period exceeded $13,000,000, or about two million more than the highest previous record. Lumber and oil constituted the bulk of the exports. and oil almost the whole of the imports.
Voters of the previously organized Fresh Water District No. of Jefferson County, in an election on November 30, authorized a bond issue of $2,000,000 for the construction of a water system capable of supplying 10,000,000 gallons daily to Port Arthur and Port Neches, the water to he brought from the Sabine River above Orange.
The Lincoln School for Negroes was officially opened on January 1, 1921.
Rice shipments abroad, which had stopped for many years, were resumed in February, when a famine in the Orient and the slump of the domestic rice markets created a foreign demand. Three thousand bags of rice were consigned to South America alone.
Creation of a recorder’s court was ordered by the city commission on March 14.
What was believed to be the first woman jury in Texas, was impanelled May 5, 1921 to hear a case of a Negro woman charged with assault. This innovation in Texas courts was brought about when a jury of men heard the case and brought in a verdict of “not guilty.” The judge immediately set aside the verdict, disqualified the jury members from further service, and sent out for a panel of the city’s most representative women. The female unit brought in its verdict of “guilty” within four minutes, “showing no least sign of nervousness or excitement. Observants in the court . . . declared the `juresses’ had even found time, that four minutes, to make hurried use of their vanity cases.”
By the last of May, the city commission had ordered the creation of a board of health to consist of eight members, including the city health officer. This was inspired by a rumor of bubonic plague, which had raged throughout the coastal area for the first three months of the year. Dr. 0. H. Cox, health officer, reported that he had fumigated a total of 196 ships during that period, and that no cases had appeared in the city. One of the board’s first acts was to have all bread wrapped before being sold.
On the eve of the annual observance of Gates Day, members of the Gates family asked that it be discontinued. On the night of May 18, however, hundreds of pieces of fireworks purchased before the celebration were set off.
A reminder of the war just past was the organization of a post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States on June 5, 1921. In this month, notices on lamp posts advised Mexicans to leave Port Arthur. These warnings were posted as the result of a strike at the refineries, during which Mexicans were used as strike breakers. Violence was prevented.
In October, publishers of the city directory announced that the city’s population stood at 26,340. A survey for 1920 and 1921 showed that approximately $1,000,000 worth of building had been done, and that there still was a shortage of housing facilities.
Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Beaumont and Port Arthur, headed by six white-robed figures carrying the American flag and followed by three more carrying a fiery cross, moved silently through the crowded streets of Port Arthur on the night of February 18, 1922. Not a sound was heard from the marchers or the onlookers.
The fad of feminine hairbobs was sweeping the country, and when several local teachers decided to follow the dictates of fashion the school board held a meeting and decided that the “flapper-type of school ma’am” could not teach in Port Arthur.
The purchase of the Port Arthur Telephone Exchange was announced on June 16 by the Southwestern Bell Telephone Company. Before the month was over, the first inter-city bus line was established between Port Arthur and Port Neches, making the run in the then incredibly short time of one hour.
A vote, July 1, on the issuance of $675,000 worth of bonds to be used for school improvements, carried by more than two to one. This assured an east and west wing for the high school building, each two stories high, to provide for a new department of physical education, and an adequate home economics department. It was announced that the former department would include “a swimming pool, shower rooms, two and offices for the department. To the home economics department will be added a cafeteria.” In the east wing were to be shops for a manual training department and for the physical sciences. An addition to the DeQueen School provided for a natatorium, two gymnasiums, shower rooms and several class rooms.
The Port Arthur Daily News announced on July 10 that the “dream road between Port Arthur and Orange is soon to become a realization.” Bids had been received for work on a two-mile-long marsh road through the Neches River bottoms.
In August it was pointed out by city officials that Port Arthur’s $1,500,000 improvement program was “creating a new era in the city’s history.” Funds had been appropriated by the United States Government for deepening the Ship Canal to the Gulf. In addition, water extension lines were nearing completion and a paving program was well advanced.
During the last few days of the year, and extending into 1923, Port Arthur had a series of mysterious fires attributed to incendiaries. They started on the night of December 26, when the Deutser department store was broken into and, apparently, deliberately set ablaze; the loss was estimated at $90,000. As Fire Chief LaRose entered the building, he was struck by a heavy instrument. At almost the same time a $5,000 fire, believed to have been caused by defective wiring, swept the Woolworth store. On January 17, 1923, fire swept a section of the business area in the early morning hours and damaged fourteen business places. Irate citizens met with police and after determining that the fires were the result of a well-laid plan to destroy the business section of the town, offered a $5,000 reward for the apprehension of the firebugs. No one was arrested.
Another refinery was added to the industrial plants of Port Arthur when it was announced during the week of February 12 that the Atlantic Refining Company had purchased property near the city and would begin work within a few weeks.
A million dollars’ worth of improvements for the Port Arthur and Sabine district was assured when President Warren G. Harding signed the Army appropriation bill on March 2, allocating funds to improve rivers and harbors.
The Sabine project called for deepening and widening the channel from its mouth to Beaumont and Orange, and dredging the Port Arthur and Beaumont turning basins to a uniform depth.
During January, 1924, officials of the Port Arthur Wireless Station completed operation arrangements with agents of Mexican revolutionists under which commercial messages and war dispatches were to be transmitted between Port Arthur and Vera Cruz from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. The Port Arthur station was selected because it was the only wireless equipment on the Gulf coast strong enough to transmit messages to the interior of Mexico.
Immediately following this, something approaching an international crisis developed when three emissaries of the revolutionists arrived to arrange for purchase of war materials, including guns and ammunition, and United States Government agents appeared to see that President Coolidge’s embargo against shipments of war munitions into Mexico was not violated.
An explosion at the Texas Company refinery at 2:45 a.m. on January 14 killed ten men and seriously injured twenty-eight, when flaming oil was sprayed over a wide area. Hundreds of relatives of refinery workers flocked to the scene as the disaster news spread. The property loss did not exceed $225,000, but the city two days later observed a five-minute pause in memory of victims of the disaster.
At an informal conference held at High Island, county commissioners of Jefferson, Chambers and Galveston Counties agreed to work together for a direct road between Port Arthur and Galveston by way of Sabine Pass. The first part of this highway, from Port Arthur to the Gulf, was called the McFaddin Beach shell road, and was used by those seeking recreation at the seashore. An old highway, used between these points before the Civil War, had been known as the United States Post Road, and during the War had been used for transporting mail between Sabine Pass and Galveston. Before 1920, there were no good roads in that area. The Post Road was passable, but rough. The agreement for the new road called for ferry accommodations to Galveston Island, with from three to five trips daily at a minimum charge of $1 an automobile.
Three weeks later, a mass meeting of Orange citizens demanded that the county commissioners’ court issue $80,000 worth of warrants to improve the road between Orange and Port Arthur.
Reminiscent of the century before Port Arthur was built, when adventurous men roamed the swamps trapping and trading with Indians, was the establishment of a muskrat farm in the marshes south of Keith Lake, a few miles below Port Arthur on the Sabine Road, which was “expected to yield 100,000 pelts bringing a minimum price of 60 cents each.” Promoters of the farm built two and one-half miles of road and dug twelve miles of canals. The Port Arthur News said:
Because of the superior quality of Texas muskrats found in this section and the high prices the pelts bring in the markets, the product of the farm . . . will be certified as the genuine product through a Port Arthur bank. . . . Local products on the market will be one of the features of the fur buying centers during the coming season.
A movement to change the local municipal form of government was begun on November 13, when a group met and perfected the City Manager Form of Government League. Four days later, the People’s Government League, whose members adhered to the commission system, was formed. The city manager form of government was defeated, although the organization backing it decided to remain intact and continue its educational program.
Trustees of the school board decided in February, 1925, to establish a free clinic for vaccinating against a smallpox epidemic sweeping the country. A pest house was established beyond the Gulf refining plant. Within four days, 1,350 pupils had been vaccinated.
The Gulf Refining Company on May 17, 1925, announced the purchase of the Port Arthur Wireless Company’s radio station on Lake Shore Drive, and that its operation would be discontinued. The construction of the Gulf Refining Company’s radio station and its use for general as well as company business, it was pointed out, would provide adequate radio facilities for the city.
A supply of fresh water, long a matter of concern to residents of Jefferson County, was considered during 1926 by the Sabine District Fresh Water Council. Surveys were made of the upper Neches River by the State Board of Water Engineers, and by the United States Geological Survey, to locate the site for a dam to impound fresh water. Port Arthur, Beaumont, Port Neches, Nederland, and all the big oil refineries of the area were affected by the plans.
When, on April 11, it was announced that Galveston had passed its Bolivar Peninsula road bond issue, there was great rejoicing in Port Arthur, because the projected highway would link Port Arthur and Beaumont with Galveston. The highway was to be one hundred miles long, “every foot of it running parallel to the Gulf.”
But this jubilation was overshadowed by another oil tragedy, this time an explosion on the Gulf of Venezuela, one of the Gulf Company’s largest tankers. The disaster, worst of Port Arthur’s marine tragedies, occurred at 3 a.m. on April 12, as a full cargo of 85,000 barrels of high test gasoline was being pumped into the ship. With only ten minutes more of pumping, a tiny spark from a cigarette set off two land blasts and a series of smaller explosions that killed twenty-nine men and seriously injured a score more. Bodies were hurled in all directions, and every available facility was pressed into service to care for the victims.
The city mourned for nearly a week as daily services were held for the dead. Flags fluttered at half staff, business came to a standstill, and for hours before funerals were held, streets from the chapel to the cemetery were packed with humanity. Identification of most of the dead had been impossible although names were known. Choirs of all local churches, and the high school orchestra combined in the services.
Tragedy gave way to a happier mood on May 8, when the Port Arthur-Orange state highway was opened; 10,000 people were at the celebration of the completion of the highway, built without state aid at a cost of more than two million dollars.
In the meantime work on the beach highway was progressing rapidly, and on June 22, it was announced that the road had been graded to within one mile of High Island. Simultaneously, it was announced that Intracoastal Canal surveyors had passed High Island and that less than fourteen miles remained to be surveyed along the bay.
Fresh water from an intake on the Neches River eighteen miles above Beaumont was turned into the mains in Port Arthur on March 15, 1927. The ceremony, which citizens had eagerly anticipated for more than a quarter of a century, was a simple one; Mayor James P. Logan sat in his office and pressed a button. This gesture also marked the opening of the city’s new $426,000 filtration plant. For the first time in its history Port Arthur had an almost limitless supply of fresh water.
Building values soared to $227,000 during August, to be followed in September by the passage of a $1,500,000 school bond issue. Improvements included a $570,000 junior high school and three lower grade school buildings, additions to three structures, and the purchase of several new school sites and equipment.
The port of the city, used entirely for more than twenty-five years by one railroad, underwent a momentous change on January 25, 1928. The Port Arthur News announced:
Port Arthur’s harbor, for more than 25 years monopolized by a single railroad, was thrown open to the world today when, in a decision that is believed almost limitless in its benefits to this city as a shipping center, the Interstate Commerce Commission agreed that the Kansas City Southern railway shall open its local terminals on a switching basis to any other railroad seeking to use K. C. S. docks and wharves and other port facilities.